The Limits of Potential – Part 2, The Search for Perfection

Imagine a seed for a gum tree. We can plant that in good soil, provide good sunlight and give it regular water. In a good environment that tree will grow to be big and strong. Or will it?

Defects in the DNA of the seed may cause problems with the strength of the trunk, a lack of wind will result in a similar lack of strength, no bacteria and fungus in the soil will lead to poor absorption of minerals and water being given only from above will cause a very shallow root system to grow as there is no benefit to a deep root system in the face of no wind and no requirement to suck up water from deep down. This tree is significantly flawed. Yet it is still a gum tree, and beautiful gum tree.

Given a tree in a good environment, and with good DNA, the tree will grow towards the source of sunlight. If the tree has neighbours who block the overhead sunlight, the tree will grow towards the source of light, bending as it grows. I could similarly trim any branch that leaves the main trunk, steering the growth to be upward and very straight. For me, that is useful as I wish to use this tree for its wood and I will get longer straight beams from this tree. But is it a beautiful gum tree still? Is this the definition of perfection? In one sense the straight tree is perfect for my purposes, in another sense the shape of the bent tree is aesthetically interesting and I can draw it, or create a swing from it, or just admire the intricacies of life as it twists and turns.

As the tree grows, it has no idea of perfection, of the optimum shape for a tree in an ideal setting. It simply grows as best it can with what it has such that it optimises its water intake, its nutrient intake, its solar intake and resists wind, avoids poor soil, avoids other plants wherever possible. The shape the tree takes, the strengths it has, the beauty it forms are all the natural progression of the nature of the tree in the nurture of its environment. The tree is beautiful.

The tree does not mistake an ideal of perfection for its optimal life given the environment and genetics it has. Optimal is the goal for perfection is but an illusion.

We humans are very much like this tree, except we often mistake optimal for less than perfect, chasing perfect as if it were real. We all live optimally given our circumstances.

We may want more than our current level of optimal has. We humans can change our circumstances to change what optimal looks like. To do this we need to spend some resources, changing our soil, our water, the nearness to other trees, the amount of sunlight we have and how much wind we endure. Some of us have had hard luck with nature and nurture and barely have the resources to maintain what we have. Change will be slow and hard.

If we look at an image of perfection, we will feel far from capable, far from worthwhile and full of mistakes. This is an illusion. The choice of how to proceed is now up to you.

Look, choose, act.

The Limits of Potential

I recently went to a Social Workers professional development which included a workshop about Complex Trauma. That is a fascinating subject and I will write about it one day. However the part that intrigued me was where the facilitator talked about the changes to brain development interference from trauma that can be measured. Some of this can be corrected for by neuro-plasticity, and some of this can’t.  This got me thinking about the limits of our biology and the ageless nature verses nurture debate.

Each one of us is born with a certain level of genetic potential. Consider the seed you plant that becomes a tree. All of the instructions are there in that seed. The amount of water you give it, the soil you plant it in, and the amount of pruning animals give it, the diseases it withstands and so on will define how well that seed grows into a tree. No matter what these factors are though, a gum tree will not begin to grow oranges. The seed is defined by its nature but the path to its potential is defined by its nurture.

Short of future medical DNA changes, there is an upper limit to how long we humans can live for, how many times our cells will divide accurately enough to repair damage, how strong our bones can be, our muscles, the speed and depth of our intelligence and reaction speed and so on. Impacting on this genetic potential is our lifestyle, our epigenetics, and our environment. Each one of these detracts somewhat to where we could be in an optimal life. Some of the things we chose to do repair some of these detractions and gain us some of our lost potential.

We can choose lifestyles that allow us to live as close to our potential as possible. Each deviation from this lessens us. Yet who is to say that this deviation gives us a worse life? Good and bad are very subjective terms. To give a nice false dichotomy, I could be choosing between a path that leads to a long but lonely life, or a shorter, more fulfilling life. For example, I may choose to donate a kidney to my child, knowing that I have less time on Earth, but more time with her.

Have I met my potential by doing this sacrifice? The initial error lies in assuming that genetic potential is a linear limit, rather than realising that in order to reach one genetic potential, I may have to sacrifice others. I will not reach my physical peak speed without wearing out the cartilage in my joints which adversely affects my comfort in my older years, or I may only reach my peak of intellectual knowledge in programming by sacrificing my social life and so on.

My choices are what lead to which potentials I maximise, knowing that I can never truly reach any of them, but I can get closer so long as I am also willing to sacrifice. Yet what if I don’t want to sacrifice any potential? This “I want it all” options seems good, except that this leads one to be a very mediocre personage, who never really strives in any direction and lives a very neutral, plain life.

Some of the things affecting my life are biological differences brought upon me by the epi-genetics [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epigenetics] interpreting my DNA. This can be additional interpretters added to my body by recent lifestyle changes (it takes about 6 months for your body to realise that you are now exercising and adjust for it [http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/07/130703101344.htm]) or intergenerational epi-genetic adjustments, such as being born in years of famine [http://io9.com/how-an-1836-famine-altered-the-genes-of-children-born-d-1200001177]. Even though I might have a DNA trait for long life, it may be adversely affected by another factor that blocks the expression for that long life gene.

Environmental factors also impede our potential. Sometimes it’s the families we are born into, the amount of emotional/social/economic resources available as we grow, the marriages we enter or leave and so forth. Each of these can detract from our potential, but equally they can also inspire us to reach our potential.

Some try to say that nature is all – if you have the genetics to live a long life and withstand poisons, then that is what you get, while if your genetics destine you to early heart failure and asthma, then that is it too. Some try to say that nurture is all – the environment affects you the most, the love you get from your parents, the wealth of your family, the choices you make. This is a false dichotomy, it is not one or the other. It is both. Your nature defines your potential – you cannot reach beyond it. Your potential is not one dimensional, it is the maximum reach you can achieve from a set location (birth) in any direction, but you cannot grow in all directions at once. Your nurture does not define you either, else people would never leave their home environment. Instead that defines the opportunities you can choose to take, the challenges to overcome and so on. It helps you find the direction that you travel while exploring your nature.

Logical Fallacy #10: False Continuum and False Dichotomy

I am going to lump two different Logical Fallacies together because they both have to do with how we class objects.

We humans like to categorise things. We like to parcel ideas up and put them in labels, and then we like to parcel labels up and put them in categories and so forth. In reality every item in this universe is a discrete entity, which shares some characteristics with at least one other thing, but will always have some kind of difference to those other things.

That is pretty heavy going, philosophically, but try to stick with me here. We get a range of items from a tree which we call apples. Each apple from the tree is different to each other apple, yet we call them apples because basically they are the same. We can look at these objects compared with similar types of items from two other trees. One of these similar items is close to the same, but has red skin instead of green skin. Another has orange, but has different insides. We class the two similar ones as “apples”, but separate them based on their colour (or even their specific species, but still class them as apples). The orange coloured things have a separate name as well, and since we are simple we will just call them Oranges. All three fall into a category called “fruit” due to a similarity in form and location found. Yet when comparing two seemingly equal things, they are still different, even if that difference can only be detected because they are in different places at the same time. It makes sense to call the collection of very similar items a single name such as “apples”, and a looser collection of things a looser name such as “fruit”.

The colours of the rainbow are on a spectrum of frequencies, from red up to blue. In between there are a range of other colours that we humans detect – red, orange, yellow, green, blue. We can see that in this spectrum, which is a continuation from red to blue, or a continuum, are in between frequencies that are also part of the “visible spectrum”. It doesn’t jump from one frequency, miss a few, and then go to the next set. The more we look between each band of light, we find more bands of light. That is, there is no empty bit where there is nothing. So visible light is an excellent example of a continuum.

Fruit, on the other hand, is not. There is a gap between where you class a fruit as an apple and a fruit as an orange. Maybe in the past this was not so, but now there certainly is. When we try to look at a different fruit, such as a pear, and compare that to the apple, we find it hard to define exactly why one is a pear and one is an apple, yet we do.

One of the Logical Fallacies has to do with attempting to class apples as pears, because the edge of where one ends and the other begins is fuzzy and hard to define. Similarly one could try to state that the colour red is actually the colour yellow, because the point where red becomes orange is impossible to distinguish, and the point where orange becomes yellow is also impossible to distinguish. So red is orange, orange is yellow, therefore red is yellow. Clearly that is not the case – it is false. A classic example of this in mundane life is to look at cults and religions. It is hard to define the difference, so one could mistake the two for being the same thing. Yet they aren’t.

The other Logical Fallacy is to insert a gap in the spectrum that doesn’t exist. Going back to our light spectrum, the colour red is at one extreme and blue is at the other. The False Dichotomy implies that there is no colour in between. You can choose a colour – but there is only really red or blue, so pick these. I like to sometimes mess with peoples heads and add a third option in that is equally distant to the other two, changing my one dimensional spectrum into a two dimensional triangular spectrum and give them a false trichotomy. Maybe I’m just mean.

The False Dichotomy asks you to choose between only two alternates when there is a spectrum of choice to make. A subtle side trap of the false dichotomy is that it is very human to draw a direct line between the two options offered and only select on that spectrum, when really there are other options too. Perhaps you want a yellow and violet striped colour selection. Neither of those colours was on offer, nor was combining them in an interesting way, and the violet falls way out of the offered spectrum of choice. The False Dichotomy would resist this selection, trying to push you into the binary choices offered. You either worship god or you fear god. Perhaps neither of these are true for me, yet the Logical Fallacy erroneously pushes me to select one of them.

In summary, the False Continuum and False Dichotomy Logical Fallacies have to do with misusing our classification systems of items. The point of categorisation is to simplify data processing, but that can be a trap if we over simplify or misrepresent the information or the choices as a consequence of that classification.

Logical Fallacy #9: Errors in Analogy

There are two main ways to explain something. Comparing and contrasting. You compare to something that you do know and fill in the differences, or contrast it to something that you do know and fill in the differences.  An analogy is a mechanism for comparing to something that you do know. It comes from the Greek word analogia, which means “similar too”. This logical fallacy corrupts the useful tool of the analogy and extends it down three possible faulty paths.

The left fork in the analogy path is taking the analogy too far. The right is to mistake the analogy for the event. The middle path leads to analogies that have nothing to do with the thing you are trying to discuss, primarily due to ignorance.

Taking the Analogy Too Far: This is where an analogy begins as a useful tool to understand a concept or idea that is unfamiliar to you by placing it in a familiar setting. This initially boosts the speed at which the idea can be absorbed. A good example would be to compare gravity to a distortion in a rubber sheet. This quickly gives a two dimensional sheet a third dimension that changes the path of a marble that is rolling along the sheet and deviates into an orbit around a large body (like a bowling ball). Very quickly do you see how a similar distortion in space caused by our star would bend an object travelling through the solar system and have it end up in an orbit. Taking the analogy too far is to ask what happens when the object is so massive that it rips a hole in the rubber sheet, or placing all of the objects in our solar system in this model and watching them all sink into the central sun – which clearly doesn’t happen.

Mistaking the Analogy for the Event: The analogy is chosen for a conceptual similarity to the process you are trying to describe. Take the rubber sheet above. It has a similar concept of distortion of a surface (space). The error here lies in thinking that space is a rubber sheet and giving space the properties of that rubber, that large objects on the sheet of space are protruding into some other space and so forth. The concept that was analogous was the way objects in motion are distorted because of the stretching of space – the rest is not the same.

False Analogy: Trying to create an analogy that is not actually similar to the process you are describing, because you don’t understand the process you are describing. A common one is to suggest that as far as evolution is concerned, an organism evolving into an human by chance is the same as tornado ripping through a junk yard and making a 747. The faulty understanding is to consider that evolution is complete chance, rather than an evolution of working features that are mutated by chance, where the working features continue and the faulty ones fail, and where the definition of “working” isn’t the same as “wanted”. A better analogy would be to describe how water carves out a gorge from a mountain. The path is not predetermined, however strengths and weaknesses in the rock will resist or succumb to the water, creating a beautiful work of art without the requirement for an artist.

Remember that the correct use of an analogy is a powerful teaching tool. The misuse of the tool can create problems.

Mistaking coping mechanisms for addiction

I was listening to an interesting interview on the Skeptics Guide to the Galaxy (12 October 2013, #430 – http://www.theskepticsguide.org/podcast/sgu/430). The interview was with Marty Klein (http://www.martyklein.com) about the myths of sexuality and addiction.

Klein stated emphatically that there is no such thing as sexual addiction. He points out that ‘sexual addiction’ is an umbrella faulty diagnosis of other conditions (such as OCD, low self esteem and narcissism). It is akin to looking at someone who obsessively washes their hands and diagnosing them as having a ‘hand washing addiction’. Clearly that is diagnosing the symptom and not the behaviour or underlying cause.

Klein also points out that different societies define sexuality and typical in different ways. The age of consent, what is culturally appropriate for different genders and so forth. He also points out that people change as they grow older, so the normal for someone when they are 18 is different to when they are 38 and 58. If you are 58 years old and comparing your current sexual performance to that of yourself when you were 18, you will be in for a world of disappointment (usually).

This spawned an excellent side discussion about what “normal” is and why it is such an awful term to use. People are desperate to be normal, yet the definition for normal changes depending on culture, generation, age, time in history, sub cultures and your own biology. Considering the definition is so variable, why would you want to pin yourself with such a ‘standard’? Instead work out what is good for you and those you interact with. If that is fine, then all is good with your part of the world. However if what makes you happy is someone else’s misery/pain, or you are miserable/in pain, then there is an issue to be addressed.

The SGU and Klein discussed the difference between blaming an addiction vs taking responsibility for ones own actions. Klein gave the example of a man who said he had to have sex twice a day due to his addiction. When Klein probed what would happen if he didn’t, the client stated he would feel miserable and unworthy. Thus the client was using sex as a way to treat his exceedingly poor self worth, low self esteem and existential crisis. As most self medications go, it relieved the symptom but did not treat the cause.

This prompted me to consider, how often do we excuse our behavioural ‘self medication’ by saying we have some kind of condition that describes a symptom rather than addressing the underlying cause? Is this a good or bad thing? Or is there some aspect of both rather than addressing this in a false dichotomy?

If you want to change…

An old work colleague use to say to me “If you want changes in your life, you’ve got to make changes in your life.” Seems really pithy, but it is most certainly true. If you don’t make the changes, then the changes that do occur are external random happen-stance. More to the point, the changes aren’t the ones you are making – they are ones you are surviving.

There are few constants in this universe. One of the main ones is change. You cannot hold onto something unchanging. What we thought of as right generations ago is no longer right, what we considered wrong is no longer wrong. The lump of metal we use as our baseline for weight is different now to when it was made. Everything changes (with the exception of purely mathematical abstractions, of course).

There are three things you can do in the face of change.

1) Resist it

2) Adapt to it

3) Guide it

Of course the world isn’t as finite as a three compartmentalised choices, it is a smattering of different components of these options. However for the sake of exploring this concept, let us examine these three things.

“Resistance is futile, you will be assimilated” quoth The Borg (Star Trek). This is certainly true of this universe when it comes to you verses change. That certainly doesn’t stop us from trying. We frequently resist change, trying to keep metal polished and non-corroded, trimming hedges, trying to hold on to love, keeping ideals fixed, hating people, staying employed to the one company, keeping that company doing the same thing and so on. Yet the more we hold on to the old and resist what is coming the more energy we loose to maintaining the pretend stagnation and the larger the cost the change will extract on us later.

We humans will hold onto the past ideas that we have large emotional attachment to the strongest. It is easiest to accept change for those ideas that we have little regard. Knowing this, we can anticipate the difficulty of letting go and accepting the new version of things based on how we feel about them. Yet if we feel nothing for anything we also have no value for this world and will feel lost and dispossessed. Nothing will have meaning.

Adapting to change is recognising that change has occurred and seeking to use that change for advantage. There are pros and cons in everything. If we use the pros and correct for the cons then our lives will evolve in a positive direction. Sometimes we will recognise that a temporary cost needs to be paid for a long term benefit. As with the above resistance, it is easier to adapt to things we have no emotional investment in, and hardest to do with those that we do.

Both of the previous solutions – resistance and adaptation – are ways of coping when change is thrust upon us. The universe is big, but the world we live in is relatively small. Even so, we don’t control anything beyond the reach of your outermost physical reach. We can affect things by what we do, but we can’t control them.

We can control ourselves.

There are four aspects to our self control. Spiritual, psychological, social and biological. Please note that spiritual is more about personal philosophy than it is about spirits. Of course spirits and gods may be part of your personal philosophy. I have written about these in the past (http://musings.jomida.com/2013/08/05/medication-not-evil/).

By changing ourselves, we can influence the environment around us, directly influencing the path that our lives goes down. We cannot control our future to the point of pre-destination, but we can choose the direction that our path goes. Consider this case: I want something from someone – If I don’t ask, I am reliant upon them randomly giving me the item – this is a very low probability. If I ask them, while they may say no, their odds of saying yes are dramatically higher. There are various ways of asking, each with an increasing likelihood of obtaining the desired outcome you wish, but nothing is guaranteed. If I ask a pauper for a million dollars, it doesn’t matter how I ask, they still can’t give it to me.

So how we change ourselves influences our environment, encouraging the direction we prefer our lives to go in. This is kind of like being on a log in a river. If we just hold on, we go where the water takes us. If we paddle with our hands, we direct the log. If we grab a branch and use that as a pole, we have even more say.

The only thing we can count on is change. We can passively respond to it by resistance and adaptation, or we can actively guide it through changing ourselves.